In this re-shaped perspective, the country’s development priorities are seen as the essential objective of foreign policy. Promoting development has always been a major consideration for India, but now development issues have been given a higher priority, thereby reflecting the sense of urgency that the government clearly attaches to economic development ~ SALMAN HAIDAR
India&’s ambassadors from the world over have just concluded an extended meeting in New Delhi where they were given a comprehensive briefing on India&’s current priorities in foreign affairs. They were brought up-to-date on the considerations which must shape their diplomatic activity abroad, and it is a token of the seriousness of the exercise that the Prime Minister himself addressed the gathering. In his speech, Mr. Manmohan Singh called for a ‘fundamental reset’ of policy in response to the country&’s expanding international responsibilities in the midst of the immense changes now happening in the world. To this end, he outlined five essential principles that have come to define India&’s foreign policy, not so much a recasting of established policy as homing in on essentials while setting out a new direction.
Putting together such a conference of ambassadors is in itself is a demonstration of stronger diplomatic ambition and readiness for fresh initiatives. Not many similar ambassadorial conclaves have taken place in the past though there have been one or two: in earlier days, when the country had perforce to practise great austerity owing to its very limited financial resources, such an initiative would no doubt have been considered an unacceptable extravagance: at best, one would see gatherings of regional envoys when leaders from Delhi were on a visit to a particular region. Enforced penny-pinching does not make for active responses to challenging situations, so the kind of across-the-board exercise just seen has much to commend it. For one thing, it reminds everyone, including some envoys tucked away in remote parts that seldom figure on the MEA screen, that in this globalised era nobody is out of sight or out of mind.
The principles set out by the Prime Minister need careful attention. What is immediately evident is that there is no mention of nonalignment. Since earliest independence, it is nonalignment that has been the foundation and touchstone of Indian diplomacy, and India has been regarded as the chief progenitor of the nonaligned doctrine. But the significance of this doctrine has been fading for some time, after the ending of the cold war. Although the nonaligned movement (NAM) remains active and has not lost the allegiance of its members, it has had to yield prominence to other groups and doctrines. Even so, from time to time efforts are made to re-define nonalignment in the light of present day needs ~ only recently a highly regarded group of experts described it as the continued search for strategic autonomy, which is indeed a core nonaligned value. The Prime Minister, however, decided not to hark back to the term and all it implies, preferring to look ahead to what now needs doing. Nonalignment thus no longer commands centre stage even in the land of its origin.
Another attitude to a degree linked with NAM is solidarity among third world countries in global economic affairs, and this too is no longer a thrust area of policy, to judge from the PM&’s remarks to the ambassadors. He spoke of ‘stable, long term and mutually beneficial relations with all major powers’, which provides a different perspective from the familiar one of the G-77 or group of developing countries, of which India has been a leading member since it was established in 1964: G-77 worked assiduously to obtain special advantages for developing countries in global economic exchanges, with some success, but the action has long shifted to bodies like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva where member-states pursue their individual and group interests. The considerations that drove the G-77 a generation ago no longer apply and third world solidarity is not seen as the path to advantage for the developing countries ~ indeed, even the terms ‘developing country’ and ‘third world’ have become dated and of greatly reduced relevance. India and China, the largest and most potent emerging countries, are sometimes blamed by erstwhile partners for claiming particular privileges as ‘developing countries’, especially in discussions and conferences on environmental issues where there is a demand for them to assume greater responsibilities commensurate with their size and the environmental impact of their policies. It is noteworthy that the guiding principles listed by the PM deliberately move away from ideas and perceptions of an earlier era. The ‘reset’ of which he spoke is in reality a major departure and sets out to project an India as ready to take a more active and confident part in global affairs. It should be welcomed as such.
In this re-shaped perspective, the country&’s development priorities are seen as the essential objective of foreign policy. Promoting development has always been a major consideration for India, but now development issues have been given a higher priority, thereby reflecting the sense of urgency that the government clearly attaches to economic development. With this re-emphasised link between foreign policy and development, certain changes to some familiar ways of conducting the nation&’s business must follow; reference has already been made to the diminished usefulness of the ‘third world’ ethos. What the Prime Minister now calls for is greater integration with the world economy and maintenance of stable relations with all major powers, concepts that follow logically from the revised goals of foreign policy but have not hitherto been stated in such clear terms. It is noteworthy, too, that the matter of security, which has lately tended to dominate the foreign policy discourse, is seen as part of the search for an improved global economy and security environment. Growth and security are thus seen as mutually supportive.
In this renewed quest for an enlarged international engagement for the country, the Prime Minister does not ignore matters nearer home and makes due acknowledgement of the shared destiny of the countries of the Indian sub-continent, drawing particular attention to regional cooperation and connectivity as two important areas of endeavour. Maintaining good relations with neighbours is a perpetual preoccupation of Indian policy, always meriting the importance it has received from successive leaders of the country, including the present Prime Minister. And ultimately, going beyond matters of changing strategy, he invokes the basic values of the state which must animate policy in all areas of national endeavour, not external relations alone. It is a thought provoking and satisfying iteration of what the country needs and the course it must pursue to attain its goals.
But between careful iteration and effective action lies a considerable gap. The dominant discourse on foreign policy at this time has little to do with the carefully structured five principles set out by the Prime Minister. Powerful regional demands have compelled the Prime Minister to keep away from the impending Commonwealth meeting in Colombo. The balanced foreign policy structure set out for the guidance of the ambassadors has proved vulnerable before the imperatives of domestic politics.
The writer is India&’s former Foreign Secretary